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Syracuse football 2018 opponent preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

Pitt was bad last year. Can they stay that way?

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Sure the Syracuse Orange’s football season doesn’t kick off until August 31. But that’s not going to stop us from discussing SU’s 2018 opponents.

The Orange face yet another challenging schedule this year (and odds say we’re looking at 4.5 wins). So it’s not going to be easy, even with an improved and/or healthier team. Still, we’re looking at the positives wherever possible. Today’s foe:

Pittsburgh Panthers

School: University of Pittsburgh

Mascot: Panthers

#BRAND Slogan: “Hail to Pitt”

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “At best, the fourth-most important team in Pittsburgh” or “Playing Ketchup Since 1869”

Recommended Blog: Cardiac Hill

Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Coach: Pat Narduzzi, 4th season. Narduzzi played linebacker for Rhode Island and Youngstown State in the 1980s, then got into coaching as a grad assistant at Miami (Ohio) in 1990. He got his first coordinator gig at URI in 1998 and his second in 2003 with the RedHawks once again. From there, Narduzzi went to Cincinnati and then Michigan State, where he coached from 2007-14. Since taking the Pitt job in 2015, he’s 21-17 with two bowl losses and a disturbing story about basically trying to kill Scott Shafer.

2017 Record: (5-7) (3-5)

Recapping Last Season:

Pittsburgh’s defense struggled mightily out of the gate last year, and contributing to the team’s 1-3 start. After needing overtime to beat Youngstown State, the Panthers allowed 33 points to Penn State, 59 to Oklahoma State and 35 to Georgia Tech. Though the defense improved in the second half of the season, it wasn’t enough to overcome an offense that was never quite able to find its way under any of the three quarterbacks plugged in (Max Browne, Ben DiNucci or Kenny Pickett). Pitt won three of five to end the year and save some sort of face. But it was a clear step back from the first two seasons under Narduzzi.

After sporting a top-40 offense in 2016, Pitt dropped all the way down to the bottom third of the country in 2017. The Panthers ranked 97th in total yards per game (366.2), 101st in scoring (23.9 points), 86th in rushing and 73rd in passing. For a team that had gotten by on the strength of rushing the football in previous seasons, run production falling that far created an identity crisis for the offense. Leading rusher Darrin Hall was efficient (4.9-yard average on 128 carries), as were secondary runners Qadree Ollison (4.4 ypc) and Quadree Henderson (7.0 ypc). But they never really carried the ball enough and also maintained one of the slowest attacks in the country.

While the aforementioned defensive issues were repaired a little as the season went on, it still didn’t completely negate a secondary that proved just as porous as Syracuse’s. Pitt allowed over 254 yards per game through the air (106th in FBS) and 7.8 yards per attempt. Five different opponents topped 250 passing yards against the Panthers, including high marks by Oklahoma State (572) and the Orange (365). Even YSU had 311 passing yards against this defense.

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2018 Season Outlook:

On the strength of reasonably good recruiting and 64 percent returning production, Pitt might just be able to rebound from numbers perspective in 2018. However, the schedule doesn’t necessarily cooperate in the same way. The S&P+ has them at No. 45 to start the year, but Pitt has road games at Notre Dame, UCF, Wake Forest and Miami, plus home dates vs. Penn State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. It’s no stretch to see an improved Panthers team go 5-7 against this slate, assuming they win nearly every toss-up save Wake.

Over the offseason, Pitt addressed one of its major issues, by plugging in a new defensive coordinator in Randy Bates, a long-time linebackers coach at Northwestern. The Wildcats’ defense has been ranked in the top half of the country since about 2014, and Bates has played some sort of role in that. Early feedback on Bates seem to indicate he’ll run something similar to Narduzzi’s successful secondary-based schemes at Michigan State. He’ll try to do so with nearly all of Pitt’s key defenders back from last year, save Jordan Whitehead and Avonte Maddox.

Offensively, the reins are turned over to Pickett, who threw for 509 yards last year in sporadic action. He has a bigger arm, which could open up the passing game a little bit. While he loses top target Jester Weah from last year, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Maurice Ffrench are back, as are running backs Hall and Ollison. He’ll need all of their help this year with a young O-line in front. Current depth chart projections see just two juniors, two freshmen and a sophomore starting.

Syracuse Game Date: Saturday, October 6

Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Odds of Orange Victory: 50 percent

Very Early Outlook:

These teams seem to match each other equally with experience and a lack thereof. Syracuse’s offense has a lot of veterans, while Pitt’s does as well. The Panthers’ offensive line is new, but there are questions in the Orange front-seven. Pittsburgh could get a slight advantage due to being at home, but that’s really it. If SU’s new receivers have figured something out by this point, it could be a big opportunity for Syracuse to pick them apart on shorter passes while they prevent big plays down the field.